Go local and get back to your roots

IT’S heart-lifting to see so many people back in their vegetable gardens again.

The next best thing is to buy locally-grown food and that, too, is becoming more available. We’re importing vast quantities of carrots, onions and potatoes, even cabbage, all stuff we could grow in Ireland. Undoubtedly, there are opportunities to replace foreign produce.

If anyone needed encouragement to grow their own vegetables, the fine weather of the past week couldn’t have come at a better time. Many people took advantage of the favourable elements to dig and prepare the soil. Growing your own is truly back in vogue, as evidenced by ever increasing demands for allotments from city and townsfolk.

For the first time in about two decades, I planted a vegetable garden last year, with a crop of early Sharp’s Express potatoes taking pride of place. A lovely spud, Sharp’s Express is to be recommended, so good in fact that the neighbours who sampled some are still talking about a delightful culinary experience and are looking forward to more this year. (They ought to grow their own, of course!) Some enthusiastic gardeners like to have the ‘earlys’ in the ground in February. A friend put his down on February 6 and reports baby stalks are starting to peep up. However, St Patrick’s Day is a traditional target date for many and is a deadline that should be easily made this year.

Something that’s always difficult to fathom is why the overwhelming majority of farmers have, for many years, been going to the shop for their vegetables. There are welcome signs, however, that some farmers are again planting their own, albeit in small quantities. Others are starting to grow for commercial purposes.

Caroline and Eddie Robinson have been vegetable growers for many years. Since 1996, they have been working a 30-acre farm, in Templemartin, near Bandon, Co Cork, and sell all their produce at farmers’ markets in Cork and Macroom. From the beginning, they decided to grow vegetables without using chemicals. They are not certified organic, as they cannot be bothered with the paperwork and expense of getting certified, but they use no inorganic inputs, fertilisers or pesticides.

People today like to know the provenance of their food and the Robinsons sell all their vegetables direct. They also invite customers to the farm to see how produce is grown naturally. Their emphasis is on the soil and looking after it. They have created a sustainable form of living and farming which Caroline believes will become increasingly important and more commonplace. Both work full-time on the farm and seem to have an idyllic lifestyle, without aiming for, or attaining, material riches.

The Robinsons appeared the other night in an absorbing RTÉ One documentary, The Home Place, about farming families coping with changing times and their almost visceral attachment to the land.

An avid promoter of farmers’ markets, Caroline believes all farmers should produce for the local market and try to cut out the middleman. Whilst supermarkets want supplies all year round, with shelf life and appearance being priorities, the Robinsons grow in season and concentrate on taste.

“Most farmers have no idea what people want. The only people who know are people like us who sell at country markets. We must get back the connection between grower and consumer,” she said.

Her views were echoed on the programme by Caroline Crowley, who grew up on a small farm in the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, west Cork. The new generation of young farmers should grow vegetables for sale locally, she said.

Meanwhile, a Kerry Food Week, during which participating restaurants, cafes and other food outlets will have a special menu made up of Kerry-sourced ingredients alongside their normal menu, will take place from March 25 to March 31.

The aim is to boost the market for local food producers and the food industry in general during a quiet period of the year. It is hoped to encourage local people and visitors to opt for Kerry-produced food in restaurants and cafes and to use more local produce in their homes. The programme is part of the Taste Kerry Initiative and is being run in conjunction with the South Kerry Development Partnership. A Kerry food directory will also be launched, with a listing of many food producers and their product range.

A recipe booklet featuring 15 recipes using ingredients sourced entirely in Kerry should also encourage local people to use products from Kerry in their cooking. Project manager Seán de Buitléar said while many food outlets are using a lot of locally sourced product, they are not highlighting the fact and gaining the full benefits from it.

County Enterprise board chief executive Tomas Hayes described the initiative as a “win win” opportunity for producers and restaurants and a chance to open up new outlets for locally-produced food.


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